Brexit: Border poll unlikely for now but that may change

Landscape different following vote to leave and effects could change opinion on UK

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams give their reaction to the EU referendum vote at a press conference outside Stormont Castle. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams give their reaction to the EU referendum vote at a press conference outside Stormont Castle. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers and DUP First Minister Arlene Foster were quick to dismiss the notion of a Border poll on a united Ireland following the EU referendum result. In the short term they are probably correct.

But looking a bit further into the future it is clear that the constitutional certainties of last week are no longer as firmly fixed as they were now that the United Kingdom has chosen to leave the European Union.

Prominent figures, including veteran US diplomat Richard Haass, agree: “In five years there will no longer be a UK. Scotland will be independent and part of Europe. Less certain but quite possibly all or part of Northern Ireland will join Ireland,” he said.

Unionists, no doubt, will dismiss Haass’s predictions as wild, even inflammatory. However, he is a cold, calculating thinker. Looking at the convulsions since it is hard to contradict the idea that Brexit has opened a Pandora’s box.

The will of the people of the UK was to exit Europe but the will of the majority of Northern Ireland and Scotland was to remain. Down the line that may have implications for the historic “Irish question”.

The logic of Scots being denied the chance to stay in the EU by the people of England and Wales is that Scotland should have a renewed opportunity to go its own way. The same argument will apply in Northern Ireland.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will not get their Border poll now because Villiers can argue that a sizeable majority favours the current constitutional position. But will it be the same in five years?

Villiers can point to the 2011 Northern Ireland census. It found that one in four saw themselves as exclusively Irish, compared with the 40 per cent who see themselves as solely British, or the 21 per cent as Northern Irish only.

Or she can point to BBC and Belfast Telegraph polls that showed fewer than one in five people in the North would vote now for unity. But that was then. Life has changed since the early hours of Friday morning.

That census showed that 48 per cent (864,000) of Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million population originated from Protestant households while those from Catholic households accounted for 45 per cent (810,000) – a difference of just 54,000.

Content

So many nationalists have been content to remain in the UK because of the economic security it brings, because of the British National Health Service, because of the strength of sterling, because of the welfare system, the educational system and so on.

The majority of middle-class Catholics are especially happy with these arrangements. Their confident sense of themselves is bolstered by the Belfast Agreement which allows them to express their Irish identity within the current constitutional position.

But if the exit from the EU does create serious economic instability – and it is an if – then satisfaction with the UK could change, particularly if British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s prediction that it would prompt a “profound economic shock” comes true.

And what about the thousands of unionists who voted to remain within the EU? Would their attitudes change if leaving does cut £1.3 billion (€1.6bn) from the North’s economy by 2018? Many unionists are unhappy with the uncertainty created – as shown by the huge increase in Irish passports applications.

Farmers receive 87 per cent of their income from Brussels. How would they feel if the British government does not or cannot plug that gap? And those who benefit from EU cross-community funding. What would be their view on the British union when European money dries up?

Sinn Féin sees an opportunity. The Northern Executive has been working well, but Sinn Féin could stir the pot. It is not hard to do in Northern Ireland.